A former top NASA official was found guilty Thursday of breaking ethics laws by helping a consulting client get nearly $10 million of the space agency's funds.
A jury found Courtney Stadd, of Bethesda, Md., illegally benefited a private client while on the agency's payroll and lied to ethics officials. He faces up to 15 years in prison at sentencing, scheduled for Nov. 6.
Stadd was NASA's chief of staff and White House liaison from 2001-2003, when he left to start a consulting business — Capital Solutions — that specialized in advising aerospace clients. But he came back for two months in 2005 as the interim No. 3 official at the request of President George W. Bush's newly installed administrator, Mike Griffin, who wanted to reorganize the agency that was still reeling over the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
During that time, he steered $12 million in agency funds for earth science research to the state of Mississippi. One of his clients, Mississippi State University, ended up with $9.6 million.
The case involved a common practice in Washington, where high-ranking officials move in and out of government and work in the private sector. And it also shed light on the funding relationship between Congress and federal agencies and the pressure that can be applied behind closed doors.
At the end of a four-day trial Thursday, prosecutor Matthew Solomon summed up his case to the jury by saying Stadd "owed the public and taxpayers his undivided loyalty, but he betrayed that loyalty to line his and his client's pockets."
Former NASA chief testified
Stadd didn't testify, but his attorney argued he was following Griffin's orders on where to send the grant money. But prosecutors argued that shouldn't matter since Stadd signed an ethics agreement that said he wouldn't participate in matters involving organizations in which he had a financial interest.
Stadd stood stoically as the jury read the verdict, reached after less than two hours of deliberations, and did not talk to reporters afterward. His attorney, Mark Rollins, only said they were disappointed and would appeal.
The case involved $15 million that Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., pushed through Congress for earth science research.
Griffin, now a professor at the University of Alabama, testified that he considered Cochran the most important senator because he was then head of the appropriations committee. He said when he went to Cochran's office ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing, the chief of staff "let me know in no uncertain terms that the senator was unhappy that his earmark wasn't being honored."
Griffin said he promised to get it taken care of and asked NASA staff to do so, although he didn't remember whether he ever spoke specifically to Stadd about it. He said he considered the earmark, equal to less than a tenth of 1 percent of his budget, an annoyance in the way of more important issues like returning the space shuttle to flight and implementing Bush's space agenda.
When Mary Cleave, acting director of NASA's Earth-Sun System Division and a former astronaut, decided to conduct a nationwide search for bids for the earth science earmark, officials at Mississippi State were upset that they may not get the funds, according to e-mails introduced as evidence. Stadd's contact at the university e-mailed him asking if he could "provide some prodding" from inside the agency.
Cleave testified that Stadd summoned her to his office and told her only $3 million should be put out for nationwide bids. The remaining $12 million, he told Cleave, should go to Mississippi because of an agreement between the state's congressional delegation.
Afterward, Stadd tried to get the university to raise his fee from $7,000 a month to $10,000 a month, citing his help with the funding.
NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said the agency does not comment on ongoing criminal proceedings.